On this day in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, with 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers, paraded in full dress uniform before cheering crowds on the Boston Common. After ceremonies at the State House, they marched to Battery Wharf and boarded steamships for South Carolina.
On Memorial Day 1897, William James addressed the 60 veterans of the 54th who gathered on the Common for the unveiling of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Memorial to their regiment:
“In these unveiling exercises the duty falls to me of expressing in simple words some of the feelings which have actuated the givers of St. Gaudens’ noble work of bronze, and of briefly recalling the history of Robert Shaw and of his regiment to the memory of this possibly too forgetful generation.
The men who do brave deeds are usually unconscious of their picturesqueness. For two nights previous to the assault upon Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment had been afoot, making forced marches in the rain; and on the day of the battle the men had had no food since early morning. As they lay there in the evening twilight, hungry and wet, against the cold sands of Morris Island, with the sea-fog drifting over them, their eyes fixed on the huge bulk of the fortress looming darkly three quarters of a mile ahead against the sky, and their hearts beating in expectation of the word that was to bring them to their feet and launch them on their desperate charge, neither officers nor men could have been in any holiday mood of contemplation. Many and different must have been the thoughts that came and went in them during that hour of bodeful reverie ; but however free the flights of fancy of some of them may have been, it is improbable that anyone who lay there had so wild and whirling an imagination as to foresee in prophetic vision this morning of a future May, when we, the people of a richer and more splendid Boston, with mayor and governor, and troops from other States, and every circumstance of ceremony, should meet together to celebrate their conduct on that evening, and do their memory this conspicuous honor.
How, indeed, comes it that out of all the great engagements of the war, engagements in many of which the troops of Massachusetts had borne the most distinguished part, this officer, only a young colonel, this regiment of black men and its maiden battle, — a battle, moreover, which was lost, — should be picked out for such unusual commemoration ?
The historic importance of an event is measured neither by its material magnitude, nor by its immediate success. Thermopylae was a defeat; but to the Greek imagination, Leonidas and his few Spartans stood for the whole worth of Grecian life. Bunker Hill was a defeat; but for our people, the fight over that breastwork has always seemed to show as well as any victory that our forefathers were men of a temper not to be finally overcome. And so here.
The war for our Union, with all the constitutional questions which it settled, and all the military lessons which it gathered in, has throughout its dilatory length but one meaning in the eye of history.
It freed the country from the social plague which until then had made political development impossible in the United States. More and more, as the years pass, does that meaning stand forth as the sole meaning. And nowhere was that meaning better symbolized and embodied than in the constitution of this first Northern negro regiment.”